UNITED NATIONS (AFP) – World powers handed Iran a new early October deadline to halt uranium enrichment, a senior European diplomat said, as President George W. Bush warned “time is of the essence” in settling the nuclear showdown.
Hopes of a snap breakthrough in the crisis however were already dimmed, with an announcement that European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana would not meet, as expected, this week in New York with Iranian negotiators.
The five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany and Italy agreed late Tuesday to give European negotiators more time to convince Iran to give up enrichment before seeking sanctions under a UN resolution
A senior European diplomat told reporters the new deadline would stretch to early October, in the hope that new talks between Solana and Iranian negotiator Ali Larijani would bear fruit.
The UN Security Council had set an August 31 deadline for Iran to comply with the demand for a suspension of enrichment operations. But Tehran, which denies US claims it is seeking a nuclear weapons, has so far refused to comply.
Bush meanwhile warned time was running out for Iran, and again wondered out loud whether the latest delay was a symptom of Tehran running out the clock.
“I’m not going to discuss with you our intelligence on the subject, but time is of the essence,” Bush said, when asked on CNN whether he backed the Israeli line that only a few months remained before Iranian scientists learned how to enrich uranium — the critical step towards building a bomb.
“I’m concerned that Iran is trying to stall, and to try to buy time, and therefore it seems like a smart policy is to push this issue along as hard as we can and we are,” Bush said.
Bush’s secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice meanwhile declined to confirm the new deadline but also warned diplomacy couldn’t stretch on indefinitely.
“Everyone wants to resolve this through negotiations and everyone wants to solve this thing quickly,” she said here.
“There is a really excellent opportunity for Iran to engage with the international community, if it will simply meet a condition (freezing uranium enrichment).”
French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy said Wednesday major powers — Britain, China, France, Germany, Italy, Russia and the United States — agreed that Iran must respond rapidly.
“We must have a response fairly quickly,” he said, “it’s becoming urgent.”
At Tuesday’s meeting, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice backed away from the long-standing US position that Iran should face sanctions immediately for failing to meet an August 31 UN deadline for suspending its uranium enrichment.
She agreed to permit a new round of negotiations between Solana and Larijani in hopes of convincing Tehran to meet the UN demand, US officials said.
If Iran suspends its enrichment, Rice said she would personally attend the launch of direct negotiations with Tehran aimed at rewarding the Islamic republic for winding down its nuclear program.
Chances of a quick breakthrough in the standoff were hit by the announcement that Larijani would not meet with Solana in New York this week as expected.
Instead, Larijani and Solana agreed in a telephone conversation to hold talks next week in an unidentified European capital, the official Iranian news agency reported in Tehran.
“It seems to have been difficult to get some of those (talks) scheduled and we would encourage the Iranians to take him up on his offer to meet with him and to clarify any remaining questions,” said Rice.
“But this cannot go on for very much longer.”
As well as the extended deadline for an Iranian response, Washington got its partners to agree to the new deadline for imposing sanctions if Iran stands firm, according to senior US and European officials present at the meeting.
Douste-Blazy said Tuesday’s meeting had agreed on the need to give Iran one more chance.
“We all thought that we had to avoid confrontation and do everything possible to pursue a dialogue … while also avoiding a situation where the Iranians, through meeting after meeting, are able to play for time and we end up with a fait accompli” of an Iranian nuclear weapons program, he said.